Can Developers and Locals Agree on Renewables in California?
Can Developers and Locals Agree on Renewables in California? Will flowers block Element Power’s first-ever solar-wind combo project in the Antelope Valley?
Herman K. Trabish, June 27, 2011 (Greentech Media)
Generating renewable energy in California’s Antelope Valley will be easy. As Nat Parker, project manager for Element Power’s Wildflower Green Energy farm, explained, “The wind blows there like a coal plant.” The solar resource? They call it high desert.
The hard part will be making the development deal with the locals. To do so, Element Power, which wants to build a first-of-its-kind combination wind and solar project, opened an Antelope Valley office. Parker, previously with the Sierra Club, has been working the region for the last year.
Element plans to build a wind farm of approximately 50 turbines with a capacity of 100 to 150 megawatts and a solar photovoltaic array with a similar capacity. “We’re talking between 250 and 300 megawatts of renewable energy,” Parker said. “The panels would be on the flatter area,” he explained, “and there would be wind turbines in and among the panels.” The design accommodates the lay of the land. “There are a number of hills and topographic features where solar would be less desirable. In those areas, we would emphasize just wind.”
The land is a former horse ranch where cattle still graze. But it is on the Valley floor, adjacent to the photogenic Antelope Valley poppy reserve, a world-famous home to California’s state flower. The location has brought challenges but also offers huge opportunities, Parker said.
“In our business, you’re looking for land with limited environmental constraints, access to markets and access to high voltage transmission,” he explained.
Because the land is privately owned and previously occupied, there are large parcels of contiguous sites with “a low incidence of serious environmental constraints” that can be carefully but readily mitigated. There are no military or radar constraints.
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It is only five miles from the high capacity Southern California Edison Antelope substation, which can deliver electricity to the Los Angeles market 70 miles away or to other California utilities via the state grid. It is also only 1.2 miles from an LA Department of Water and Power line.
But “probably the single most unique feature,” Parker said, “is that it boasts one of the most impressive on-peak late afternoon wind resources in the state. Winds pick up between four and seven in the western Antelope Valley,” he explained. “Right when the grid needs power most, Wildflower is peaking in its generation.”
“You can do a lot of good with these projects,” Parker said, but “utility-scale renewable energy projects will have impacts. We recognize that.” Element will avoid impacts if possible, he said, minimize impacts that can’t be avoided and mitigate all impacts. From a thorough study of the site, Parker explained, Element will measure impacts and deal with them. “We’re trying to create a project that is mitigated by its very design,” he said.
Finding the best mitigation methods, Parker said, means “maintaining a constant dialogue with local town councils and with environmental stakeholders and building their concerns and requests into how we design and manage this project.”
He takes nothing for granted. “We are out there pounding dirt and really reaching out to folks in a proactive way,” Parker said. The “classic not-in-my-backyard sentiment,” he added, is “something that you ignore at your peril.”
Interviews with residents, who declined to be identified, revealed serious concerns about Element Power’s project. The first and most problematic issue is the location. “The fact that the site is next to the poppy reserve is not lost on us,” Parker said in reply. “The project is called Wildflower Green Energy farm.”
Studies underway will quantify aesthetic, traffic, noise and other potential harms, Parker said, but he insisted Element’s project will not harm tourism, is preferable to the nearby NextEra Energy Portal Ridge proposal, and will generate clean, renewable energy year-round, whereas the poppy reserve is only an attraction for a span of a few weeks each spring.
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Valley residents complain that developers have been getting access to approvals by making under-the-table deals with local desert and mountain conservancy groups. “There is emotion,” Parker noted, over “who will administer mitigation programs or monies.”
But, he added, “Element Power has not made any agreement with any conservancy whatsoever.” However, he did acknowledge holding meetings with the groups “to solicit their input.”
There are even uglier allegations of energy company involvement in strong-arming land-owners for access. Parker said Element Power is not involved. “It’s unacceptable,” he said. “I think it’s a damn shame.”
A big concern of Valley residents is who will get the project’s economic benefits.
“At a time when unemployment is over 17 percent in the western Antelope Valley, we’re looking at up to 300 construction jobs over the course of 12 months and probably 12 to 20 permanent, good-paying local jobs,” Parker said, as well as “four to six million dollars in property tax revenues.”
But locals fear Element will bring in trained outsiders to fill the jobs. And, because Antelope Valley is part of LA County, property tax revenues will be spread far and wide.
Parker said he understood the doubts, but insisted that “if Antelope Acres and Fairmont will host the Wildflower project for 30 years, you better believe we’re going to be a good partner.” That partnership, he added, would include “a community investment that benefits public interest programs” with transparently agreed-to funding from Element for things like local services and community centers. In fact, Parker added, “we are in discussions with the town councils and the supervisor’s office about what that could look like.”